Greta Thunberg’s vision for a more sustainable food industry

08 October 2021, 07:16 AM
  • Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has highlighted the need for a more environmentally friendly food sector. How are the UK’s plans shaping up?
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Greta Thunberg’s vision for a more sustainable food industry

Climate activist Greta Thunberg has urged the food and drink industry to change its ways in order to protect the planet. By changing how we farm, what we eat and how we treat nature, she says, we can help society cut carbon emissions and disease outbreaks and boost biodiversity.

“Our relationship with nature is broken. But relationships can change,” she said in a video earlier this year. “The climate crisis, ecological crisis and health crisis, they are all interlinked.”

In the video, she cites a statistic that up to 75% of all new disease come from other animals, connecting sustainable food to the Covid pandemic. “Because of the way we farm and treat nature, cutting down forests and destroying habitats, we are creating the perfect conditions for diseases to spill over from one animal to another — and to us.” 

What’s more, she continues, 83% of the world’s agricultural land is used to feed livestock, yet livestock only provides 18% of our calories. “The way we make food – raising animals to eat, clearing land to grow food to feed those animals – if we continue we will run out of land and food. We will also destroy the habitats of most wild plants and animals, driving countless species to extinction. They are our life support system. If we lose them, we will be lost too.”

Hurdles remain in the UK

With the NFU targeting net zero emissions by 2040, 10 years earlier than the UK’s official aim of 2050, the sector is certainly moving towards a more sustainable future. A recent survey showed that 84% of farmers and growers are interested in applying for Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes.

However, NFU president Minette Batters has highlighted problems with the plans for ELM schemes. “This change in agricultural policy represents the biggest transformation for farmers in generations, and the NFU and its members want – and need – this transition to be a success. We have set out our path for achieving net zero by 2040 and want to ensure we can continue to produce climate-friendly food to feed the nation, with our current self-sufficiency levels at 60%. We want to see this maintained as a minimum, with government setting an ambition for growth in its new food security report later this year,” she said.

Minette said she fears for the future success of farming in the UK if the government presses ahead with its current timetable for new agricultural policy schemes, and called for a postponement to the Basic Payment Scheme reductions until 2022 and 2023.

“It’s crucial they give farmers and growers the confidence to invest, provide fairer market returns, reward environmental delivery, and realise our shared ambition of producing climate-friendly food for markets at home and abroad,” she said. “Let’s not forget, we are also reliant on these new schemes to support farming on its net zero journey.”

The National Audit Office (NAO) has also flagged issues with the ELM scheme. “Defra and its delivery partners have worked hard in challenging circumstances to design ELM within the planned timescales. However, important elements are not yet in place, creating risks to environmental outcomes and value for money,” their recent report concluded. “ELM is not yet underpinned by a strong set of objectives and Defra’s planning is too short‑term in its focus. Defra also has considerable work to do to ensure ELM is delivered in a cost-effective way including developing its approach to controlling fraud and error and to delivering cost savings.

“The success of the Environmental Land Management scheme depends on securing participation from farmers,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO. “Defra has not yet set detailed objectives for the scheme and has been slow to provide information on what farmers can expect from it. Defra must now develop detailed plans for the scheme’s delivery if it is to achieve its intended environmental goals.”

With COP26 taking place in Glasgow this year, the appetite for a sustainable transition in the UK is only set to grow.

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